Associate professor Anne Trubek argues that handwriting will soon be history, because writing words by hand is a technology that's just too slow for our times, and our minds. A copy-paste summary from her essay:

"Handwriting has been around for just 6,000 of humanity's some 200,000 years. Its effects have been enormous, of course: It alters the brain, changes with civilizations, cultures and factions, and plays a role in religious and political battles."

"Most of us know, but often forget, that handwriting is not natural. We are not born to do it. There is no genetic basis for writing. Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught."

"Proclaiming the virtuousness of one way of forming a "j" over others is a trope that occurs throughout handwriting's history. For instance, early Christians jettisoned Roman scripts they deemed decadent and pagan. "

"In the American colonies, a "good hand" became a sign of class and intelligence as well as moral righteousness."

"Only wealthy men and businessmen learned to write."

"It was not until the beginning of the 19th century — a scant 200 years ago — that schooling became universal. Then, handwriting was finally taught to American schoolchildren."

"For many, the prospect of handwriting dying out would signal the end of individualism and the entree to some robotic techno-future. But when we worry about losing our individuality, we are likely misremembering our schooling, which included rote, rigid lessons in handwriting. We have long been taught the "right" way to form letters."

"It took the printing press to create a notion of handwriting as a sign of self."

"Handwriting slowly became a form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication."

"When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one. The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official. Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. So too today: Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion and personality, and handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity."

"Typing in school has a democratizing effect, as did the typewriter. It levels the look of prose to allow expression of ideas, not the rendering of letters, to take center stage."

"The moral of the story is that what we want from writing is cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts. "

"A system that can become streamlined through specialization and automaticity has more time to think."

"This is what typing does for millions. It allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: We want more time to think."

"When people hear I am writing about the possible end of handwriting, many come up with examples of things we will always need handwriting for: endorsing checks (no longer needed at an ATM), grocery lists (smartphones have note-taking functions), signatures (not even needed to file taxes anymore). These will not be what we would lose. We may, however, forsake some neurological memory. I imagine some pathways in our brains will atrophy."

"Then again, I imagine my brain is developing new cognitive pathways each time I hit control C or double click Firefox. That I can touch-type, my fingers magically dancing on my keyboard, free of any conscious effort (much as you are looking at letters and making meaning in your head right now as you read), amazes me. Touch-typing is a glorious example of cognitive automaticity, the speed of execution keeping pace with the speed of cognition."

"Do not worry. It will take a long time for handwriting to die, for us to have the interview with the "last handwriter" as we do today with the last living speakers of some languages. Even the revolutionary Greeks took a long time to change habits. After they created the Greek alphabet, they spent 400 years doing nothing with it, preferring their extant oral culture. Handwriting is not going anywhere soon. But it is going."

Read the entire essay here.

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  • Olde media, superseded in efficiency by newer technologies, always get preserved and become elevated to art forms. Handwriting is just one example. See McLuhan's Laws of Media.

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  • Handwriting has his place along with keyboard input. The reasons are, that handwriting can be used everywhere and is more flexible (ie. math input or together with graphics).

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  • I agree with Dave, Carin, and Rudiger's comments. What I would like to add is, this whole discussion is pointless. If it dies, it will. It doesn't HAVE TO die. Hanwriting may seem unnessesary, or just another fine motor skill, like shaving, doing the dishes, sewing, knitting, and picking your nose. I never heard anybody start discussions of why knitting should die, even though it's now exclusively for enthusiasts who find joy in doing it, nobody needs to knit their skarf in order not to freeze in the winter. Why I think it should be thought in schools BEFORE children start using computers: which do you think is easier – to learn an alphabet by learning to handwrite the letters, or just by looking at them on a page or screen? A blank paper demands that the mind creates it's own images and ideas in order to write them down, not distract likea computer screen does with its pre-made images. Also, I think the author is limiting her arguments to the keyboard interface, and what about interfaces that we haven't even imagined yet? What if in 5 years an interafce is invented that renders typing obsolete, but raises the need people to be able to handwrite?

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  • " [...] Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught.” Talking must be taught too!

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  • If writing words by hand is too slow for your mind, you're not thinking hard enough. The speed of touch-typing approaches the speed of cognition, but deep analytical thought is much slower than even the slowest forms of committing information to medium (eg. engraving a stone tablet).

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  • Writing ON PAPER might become less and less common - if I had a tablet that could decipher my hand-written notes and save them as a text file I'd be so much more productive - but people have been scribbling on surfaces for longer than we've lived in permanent settlements.

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  • Good point Martijn, that you emphasize the interaction of the brain & fine motoric skills as one of the key factors in learning language and our cognitive development – typing text is certainly less stimulating for these motor skills. Then again, if handwriting vanishes – at least as a daily activity – there might be options to use these fine human motor skills for something else all together. I wonder what that could be. Apple iPad? 3D Pokemon sculpting? Seriously, just like a fine writing pen amplified our fine motor skills, we should be keen on developing new technologies that not only fit but also amplify our human capabilities. The qwerty-keyboard (of which the letters are still arranged to avoid collision between the hammers of a mechanical type writer) is certainly not it.

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  • Howdi Koert! Not at all - dyslexia goes far beyond handwriting: it's a neurological language disorder (which is often featured with other problems not related to language at all). What I was trying to say is that the idea of Anne Trubek was born in her worries about her son's writing disability. The title of her initial plea is: "Stop Teaching Handwriting" But I think even the second version (the article you quoted) of her plea is not 'balanced'. An example is how she describes what could happen to our brains if people would never learn to write again. Quite an optimistic scenario! Not a single word about the likely negative consequences for our abilities to process language, etc. The interaction of the brain & fine motoric skills is one of the key factors in learning language and our cognitive development. I can recommend this article: "Manual skills in children with learning difficulties" So, I think it is more sensible to assume that hand writing will die ... but not before human nature dies. PS. Even the climate is probably better off while we learn handwriting. Right?

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  • @Martijn: It seems you presume dyslexia and illiteracy are related to handwriting in particular, rather than to writing in general?

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  • ... an 'interesting' missing piece in the essay of Anne Trubek is: how she got into her idea - it was the writing problem of her son (who probably suffers on a variant of dyslexia!), see: Case closed? PS. On a global basis hand writing is sort serving as a key-factor in the "survival of the fitest" concerning the fine motorics - think about what usually happens with the majority of people who never was provided the ability to read and write (3th world countries). Sounds like just another intelligent but questionable 'plea for change' in the culture of schools & universities - where nowadays students appear to know more that the new generation of teachers. Next nature...? Or killing human culture?

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  • Trubek is on shaky ground when she claims, "Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught.” I don't know whether she's a Chomskyite but this certainly sounds like an argument from 30 years ago. Modern theories of embodied learning and multimodal perception indicate that in fact we probably do need to learn how to see, and certainly to talk.

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  • Cursive writing I can see disappearing. Printing or the ability to make a note or write a list by hand or to scrawl a sign is going to be important until we evolve our own built-in keyboard and monitor. Also note that reading and writing are intertwined. We mimic letters in order to practice recognizing them as well.

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    Handwriting is MUCH more versatile than typing. I seriously doubt writing by hand will ever die out.

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